Scrapbooks and Social Awareness: A Self-Curated History of the Oberlin YWCA

Part 1: Domestic Arts     |     Part 2: Student-Faculty Discussions
Part 3: Career Symposia     |     Part 4: Interracial Relations

Introduction     |     Document 8: Petition Against Poll Tax     |     Document 9: Survey from National YWCA     |     Document 10: Brochure Diversity    |     Document 11: Interracial Committees     |     Document 12: Glee Club Incident


Students meeting with President Bill Stevenson
Students meeting with President Bill Stevenson
YM/YWCA Photos, 1908-09, 1914, 1939-63, RG 29, Subgroup III, Series 4, Box 1

Long before National YWCA adopted its 1946 Interracial Charter, which would hold local chapters accountable to include membership and leadership of Black women, Oberlin YWCA addressed the issue. The 1924-25 Annual Report to National YWCA is the first record that mentions race in the archival collection of documents from the Oberlin YWCA. In it, the chapter wrote,

For two years previous, a so-called Inter-Racial group met for weekly discussion, the group being not inter-racial at all but representing two races only-white and negro. Our new idea was to make the problem less acute by including members of all races instead of centering on one and by treating a year with friendliness and understanding as the goal instead of discussion of race problems. To this end, a group of sixteen girls, eight white American, four colored and four foreign-born have met regularly as a fellowship group and through them a larger group of women have been reached in an open invitation to several social afternoons.

The girls of other races, as well as the white girls agree that the year has done much to break down the barriers by simply knowing each other. Prof. H. A. Miller tells us the principle is sound upon which we are working and it has been referred to in at least one large conference, as the “Oberlin plan”. [sic] I give it this space in my report for nothing is more insistently emphasized by the National Y.W.C.A. than the necessity of a deep understanding between students round the world regardless of creed, race, and country, if world peace is ever to come. … Perhaps we are safe in saying that the woman interested in world education, racial justice, betterment of industrial conditions, and in Bible study will be also the woman with high ideas in her social relations.”

YW applied their Christian mission of peace to interracial relations on campus. Oberlin YWCA focused on interracial harmony and friendliness in their first conversations to address barriers the College created through discriminatory housing policies. They co-sponsored events concerning racial justice during the War, including a film screening of “The Negro Soldier” as a part of “Negro Heritage Week” and a lecture by Yolanda Barnett, titled ““Minority Peoples in a Nation at War” about the Double V campaign.[1]

As stated in National YWCA’s 1946 Interracial Charter and reiterated in its updated 1955 edition, they sought to pursue racial injustice in the context of international peace. They wrote, “In today’s crisis in human relations, while people the world [sic] over are in search of answers to problems that bar them from their common goal of a durable peace, the YWCA sees an opportunity to help build world security by furthering mutual respect and understanding among all peoples–the nucleus of a world-wide [sic] community dedicated to true Christian ideals of fellowship.”[2] With the global attention focused on  the aftermath of World War II including the Paris Peace Conference and Nuremburg Trials, their concern for peaceful human interaction is understandable.

Nancy Marie Robertson writes in Christian Sisterhood, Race Relations, and the YWCA, “Given that only forty years earlier, white women in the association had accepted segregation as compatible with Christian sisterhood, the Interracial Charter was an accomplishment… Later that month, men of the YMCA at their national convention called for the elimination of segregation in their organization, although not with the degree of specificity of the YW.”[3] Its publication prompted questions of tokenism and quotas within organizations, a harsh record of the process of integration.[4]

Oberlin College President Ernest H. Wilkins and his Deans stalled many student efforts, but William Stevenson’s presidency coincided with National YW’s Interracial Charter and some modest successes were made.[5] William Bigglestone wrote, “By 1948 [the 1946 unofficial committee on interracial matters] had developed into the eighteen member Interracial Committee whose report did much to clear the air under a different president.”[6] President Stevenson’s efforts to advance racial equality–such as hiring Wade Ellis, the College’s first Black faculty member, and granting Mary Church Terrell an honorary degree in 1948–addressed student concerns in a way previous presidents had not (See Document 4 of Mary Church Terrell’s mini-edition).

The following documents pertain to Oberlin YWCA’s racial justice work during World War II. Their focus was both local, such as addressing diversity within College brochures, and national, such as petitioning against The Geyer-Pepper Bill poll tax.

[1] The film concerned “the Negro’s contribution to American military history.”

Yolanda Barnett served on the YWCA National Board, and filed a lawsuit with their support “against the Texas and Pacific Railroad company because a conductor refused to seat her in the dining car. The settlement of a thousand dollars the following year established a precedent for suing southern railroad companies in the courts of northern states where they did business” (Oberlin Review 19 February 1945; Oberlin Review 2 March 1943, YWCA Scrapbooks, Series II, RG 29, Box 4, O. C. A.; Nancy Marie Robertson, Christian Sisterhood, Race Relations, and the YWCA, 1906-46 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 159).

[2] The National Association’s Interracial Charter, National Board of the YWCA, 1955, 5, accessed 8 August 2016, Source.

[3] Nancy Marie Robertson, Christian Sisterhood, Race Relations, and the YWCA, 164.

[4] Nancy Marie Robertson, Christian Sisterhood, Race Relations, and the YWCA, 169.

[5] Ernest Hatch Wilkins was president from 1927 to 1946. He was a medieval and Italian scholar, studying the work of Petrach and Dante. William Stevenson was president from 1946 to 1959. Stevenson and his wife, Eleanor “Bumpy” Stevenson,” were uniquely active as a progressive couple during his presidency.

[6] William E. Bigglestone, “Racial Progress at Oberlin College, 1940-46,” Oberlin Heritage Center, 18, accessed 8 August 2016, Source.